The Bloodied Halls of Academia: How I Survived As an Undergraduate Horror Writer

As anyone who has spent any amount of time writing fiction at the college level will tell you, genre bias is rampant in academia. As a recent graduate from a state university, I experienced this bias firsthand. Repeatedly.

While some professors remain open-minded, others turn their noses up at the first sign of science fiction or fantasy in their workshop classes. Many have never heard of your favorite horror or romance writer, nor do they care what your idols have written or what awards they have won. A select few ban genre fiction from their classes altogether, highlighting such clauses in their syllabi.


“Elves? Seriously?”

Some of you are probably nodding in agreement, thinking back to the times when you also hit these roadblocks. I tip my hat to you, brothers and sisters in arms. However, this article is not aimed at you. Rather, this article is aimed at those still wandering academia’s halls, as well as those about to enter them for the first time. College may not welcome genre writers with open arms, but that doesn’t mean they can’t thrive there, provided they know how to go about studying the craft in such an environment.

It is also important to note that I do not support the division of so-called “literary” and “genre” fiction. I am merely using such terms for the sake of clarity as well as to properly represent the division as it exists within academia.

The first and perhaps most important thing undergraduate genre writers need to realize is that the instructors are not their enemies, even if a few of them do ban any manuscripts containing zombies or elves. In my experience, this tends to be one of the hardest lessons for students to learn. In order to understand this, one needs to first examine the situation from the point of view of the instructors. Most professors do not read or write anything that could be considered genre fiction. They are literary through and through. They don’t know the tropes. They don’t know the shorthand. Writing that kind of thing is simply out of their element.

That being the case, would it be responsible of them to try to teach an aspect of writing they have little to no experience with? No, it wouldn’t, so they don’t. Instead they teach you what they do know, which is a lot. Lucky for you, this is mostly stuff you don’t already know, the stuff from the other side of the fence, which is great because you’ve got your side covered, or will with enough practice. Let them pass on the skills they’ve mastered. Read those James Joyce stories. Do those John Gardner exercises.  Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

The second thing, which is really just an extension of knowing instructors are not the enemy, is that genre writers need to let others know they are there to play ball. Work hard, get assignments in on time, and step up when it comes to commenting on the work of others, especially in class. If the instructors know you care, they will be more likely to take your genre of choice seriously. Instructors can be skeptical of students in general, and rightfully so.  I find that most undergraduate writers, even most creative writing majors, are nowhere near as serious about the craft as they think they are.

Another thing to realize is that you are likely working against a history of garbage genre fiction that has flooded their classrooms for years. I can’t even recall the number of manuscripts I had to read about teen mermaid romance or two-dimensional, clichéd vampires. I mean really terrible, awful, wouldn’t-wish-it-on-your-worst-enemy fiction. It can take some time to navigate through all that debris and gain an instructor’s trust, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

Early on in my college career, I was waiting for one of my writing classes to start when a fellow student began complaining about comments she had received for a piece of fiction in a different class. Apparently the instructor told her the story was riddled with clichés. This upset the student because, as she explained to the rest of us early arrivals, genre fiction was supposed to be full of clichés. Wrong. This is what instructors are seeing, what you are working against. Bring the heat. Show them you can offer up originality with style.

Another way to gain the respect of instructors is to find the middle ground. Find the bridges between your world and theirs and use them to the fullest. One of the easiest ways to do this is to read writers whose work most closely rides the line between your genre of choice and the literary world. Instructors may not know who Richard Matheson was, but they’ve read Cormac McCarthy, and they’ll be more than happy to discuss horror elements when you put them in the context of The Road.

When I was attending classes, several of them used The Anchor Book of New Short Stories, edited by Ben Marcus. If you’re taking college writing courses, buy this book immediately as it will give plenty of examples of authors I’m talking about. There’s a story in the book called “Two Brothers,” by Brian Evenson, which features a religious fanatic who attempts to cut off his own leg with a kitchen knife, people eating birds, and other strange elements. Another story, “The Paperhanger”, deals with the disappearance of a child. Both are straight-up horror. In fact, the former is one of my all-time favorite horror stories. However, they are also literary stories featured alongside a host of stories by other literary authors.

While Stephen King’s fiction may have a stigma in the college classroom, the bloody antics of Brian Evenson’s work does not. That same anthology contains a story by Aimee Bender, who focuses primarily on magical realism. Bender is often spoken of in the same breath as Kelly Link (I actually heard them both mentioned no less than a dozen times at a writing festival at the university a few years ago when all the grad students were experimenting with that kind of thing). Kelly Link edited the fantasy half of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror for years. Bridges. Use them.

The third thing current and prospective students need to know is they should be doing as much learning outside of the classroom as inside of it. I’m not just talking about reading and writing on your own either, although you absolutely need to do those things. What I’m talking about is creating your own learning environments. The easiest way to do this is to start or join a creative writing workshop. As someone who has run a workshop for the last five years (it’s still going despite the fact that many of its members have graduated), I can honestly say you’ll learn just as much, if not more, about writing from a private workshop as you will from a workshop class—if you do it right.

How does one go about creating an effective workshop? The biggest thing is that you don’t let just anyone join. That may sound elitist, but believe me when I say it’s necessary. From my experience, the average writing class of 20 people contains anywhere from three to five students who actually know what they are doing and are dedicated to writing. These are the people you listen to in class, the people whose comments you read first when you get a manuscript back. Unfortunately, the rest of the class is usually more obsessed with the idea of being a writer more than they are actually interested in writing.

Pull aside the go-to people and ask them if they’re interested in a private workshop. Odds are, they’ll have some go-to people themselves. After you have a core group, only bring in people that ask to join. This makes sure you’re getting people who take the initiative. However, always remember to say no when the need arises. If the girl from class who is constantly checking Facebook while everyone else discusses manuscripts asks to join, tell her no, you’re full. If the guy who always turns in assignments two days late wants in, tell him no, you’re full. Often these people like the idea of being part of a workshop, but don’t actually do any real work.


“No workshop forda you!”

I also recommend focusing on the level of commitment people have rather than their current skill level, though it’s important to have at least a few people in the group that are better writers than yourself for the sake of growth. Ideally your workshop should contain no more than seven people. Any more than that and things get unwieldy.

In addition to seeking out like-minded individuals on campus, connecting with other writers via the Internet is hugely beneficial. The wonderful thing about the writing community is that people are so willing to help others. I find this to be particularly true when it comes to veterans wanting to pass on their knowledge to the new blood. Join a forum. Join a Facebook group. Drop another author an email. Build connections. Be a part of the online writing community. Aside from interning at Shock Totem, I’ve recently been given the opportunity to do some freelance work in the game industry. Both of these developments evolved out of meeting awesome people on forums. I can’t stress enough the importance of making connections with those who share the passion for the craft.

So if academia has got you down, fear not. There are plenty of wonderful resources waiting to change your college experience for the better. Connect with the instructors. Connect with other students. Connect with fellow writers online. Writing genre work at the college level needn’t be painful or alienating. In fact, surviving as an undergraduate genre writer can be remarkably easy, provided you know how.

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Resurrecting the Backlist: The Dead Book LIVES!

As a reader, the first time I came across a new edition of a backlist book was Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series. First published in 1983, it was full of wonderfully outdated references that, as an 80s child, I felt right at home with. In 2003, Duane re-released the series under a “New Millenium Edition,” complete with bonus material and updated technology like cell phones. I didn’t understand it, so I dismissed it as a marketing gimmick.

My second exposure to the subject of backlist books was as a writer this past July at Necon. I attended a panel moderated by Lynne Hansen, where she, Christopher Golden, Lori Perkins, Heather Graham, and John Douglas discussed the act of “resurrecting” the backlist and general marketing advice for one’s writing. The panel not only interested me as a writer, but also as a reader. Established authors dusting off their “old” novels creates a library of undiscovered stories released either before I was old enough to read them, like Young Wizards, or that just escaped my attention.

Lynne Hansen, owner at Lynne Hansen Designs, specializes in “book covers that tell a story” and helping authors resurrect their backlist titles. Her clients include Christopher Golden, Amber Benson, James A. Moore, Owl Goingback, Jeff Strand, and Rick Hautala. When I asked Lynne about the top benefit for an author to look at their backlist, her answer echoed my own excitement as a reader: “When a fan discovers you for the first time, you hope that they’ll love your work so much that they’ll want to read your other books. The more books you have in print, the more they’ll have to love.”

In the past few years, many veteran authors are discovering that they are sitting on a gold mine of backlist material. Of course, the reason for books to go out of print is that bookstores can’t carry new releases, classics, and backlist titles in brick-and-mortar stores. However, with the emergence of e-books and the Amazon marketplace, space is no longer an obstacle. Many midlist authors are hoping to again have the luxury of cultivating a fan base without the insane pressure to either hit decent sales numbers or see their books out of print.

Throwing books out of print after a short sales period is a publishing practice that pushed veteran authors like Holly Lisle over the edge in favor of self-publishing their work. On her site, Lisle echoes the sentiments of many authors. “Now,” she says, “frontlist is all that matters, backlist dies, and writing fiction for a living has become not building a career but playing the lottery.”

However, Amazon has kept up with it’s reputation for driving change in the industry and has become the best place to find “new” backlist titles. “I don’t think readers look for re-released titles the same way they look for discount e-books,” said Hansen. Sites like Amazon ensure that multiple editions, “paperback, hardcover, audiobook, etc., are all linked together,” which has been a benefit to authors and a convenience to consumers.

Hansen is passionate about her work, not just for her clients but for readers who “say they’ve wanted to read a book for years but could never find it, and they just downloaded the e-book. And I’ve heard folks say they’re re-reading a book, or even an entire series, now that it’s available electronically. That’s a nice bonus.” As a reader, I appreciate Hansen’s dedication. Nothing makes me happier than finding a new author that has a vast catalog that can be ordered with the click of a button.

Of course, one of the largest benefits to authors using a print-on-demand (POD) service like Amazon and Createspace is “you don’t have to print 10,000 books and store them in your garage just to get an affordable per-copy rate. Companies like Smashwords make it easy for you to upload a single Microsoft Word document and get your e-book distributed to a gazillion different retailers.” As Hansen also mentioned, it isn’t so much the format of the e-book that has made maintaining a backlist possible again, but rather the affordability of the process and the accessibility of those titles to readers.

I’ve heard varied arguments for or against self-publishing. There is an impression that “indie pub” has created a market flooded with unedited first drafts, thrown up for public consumption by amateur writers that are not doing their homework, which is making good writers look bad. Hansen has a much different view: “People like to think that self-publishing is The Great Leveler, but it’s not. Good books still rise to the top and bad books still (generally) fall into obscurity. Sure, there are more opportunities, but there are also a lot more challenges, especially when you’re faced with the prospect of having to do all the production work yourself.”

Fortunately for readers, there is a level of professionalism and dedication that an established author possesses to do it right. The writer seeking to resurrect their backlist has intense work ahead of them in order to re-launch and market their title, which is where Hansen comes in. “If your car breaks, you don’t pop the hood and start checking wires unless you have those skills.” Authors are great at writing books, but a lot more goes into releasing a backlist title for a new market. Obtaining the needed components to resurrect a backlist title take time and energy. This energy is better spent doing the most important task to a writer—actually writing.

“That being said, reissuing a book isn’t as simple as pulling up the Microsoft Word document and adding a copyright page,” said Hansen. “You need to make certain you have the final, edited version of the manuscript and have incorporated any line edits that came from the original publisher. You need the dedication, introduction, acknowledgments, afterword, bio, and links to your online presences.”

Hansen also suggests hiring a cover artist. “You want your name and title crisp and readable, and an image that is striking when it’s small. Most importantly, your book cover needs to resonate with the readers of your genre. If it’s a thriller, it needs to look like a thriller, not like a horror novel. You need a designer who understands marketing, because ultimately, your book cover and blurb are the best marketing tools in your arsenal.”

One difficulty Hansen has faced with marketing her client’s backlist books is “they’re not new books. They’ve already been reviewed and promoted and odds are that your die-hard fans have already read them.” Even authors with an established platform would still need to promote their backlist to a new audience. This might be as easy as appealing to a new generation of fans or hitting the market with the right book at the right time, such as Christopher Golden and Rick Hautala’s Body of Evidence thriller series, featuring young protagonist Jenna Blake.

“In today’s marketplace, the Jenna Blake books would be categorized as ‘new adult’ and is much more likely to be read by adults than by teens. It’s a category that didn’t even exist when the books were being written. For the re-issues, I designed covers that were more familiar to thriller readers than to young adult readers, and we tweaked marketing descriptions to reflect the new focus. It’s really helped the entire series reach many more readers.”

One way that authors can promote their backlist titles might seem obvious: “Backlist books are the gravy, not the meat,” said Hansen. “The best way to promote an old book is to write new ones.”

Personally, I’ve snapped up quite a few backlist titles that were released on Amazon in the past year, including Strangewood by Christopher Golden and The Wicked by James Newman, the latter released by Shock Totem in May of 2012. I was also excited to find Closed Circle Publications, a site created by award-winning sci-fi and fantasy authors C.J. Cherryh, Lynn Abbey, and Jane Fancher to market their backlist titles.

Keep an eye out for the above authors and their amazing, high-quality re-releases coming to an Internet near you. I personally will continue to forgo the trip to Barnes & Noble (which I’ve never been a fan of, honestly) in favor of staying at home with a beer, or a coffee if it’s early enough, and scouring Amazon and Google in search of new backlist titles from veteran authors. So far, my purchases have been more than worth it and have exposed me to stories that would have otherwise gone unexplored.

If any Shock Totem readers have questions about specific backlist projects, please e-mail Lynne Hansen or visit her website for further information.

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A Conversation with Writers House Agent Alec Shane

I had the pleasure of meeting Alec Shane at the annual World Horror Convention in New Orleans this year. Alec is a friendly, savvy guy who is aggressively building up his client list. He’s also one of the few agents who actively represents horror. Talking to him was a pleasure, and I get the impression he isn’t a guy who lets the grass grow under his feet.

Alec was gracious enough to stop by for an interview. Read up on what he has to say, and then send this man a query!

Mercedes M. Yardley: Very few agents seem to represent horror. Why is this? And why do you choose to do so?

Alec Shane: One of the best parts of being an agent is that you get to represent the kind of books that you love. I grew up loving horror of all types—Stephen King is more or less the reason I’m sitting here today answering these questions—and so it only makes sense that I would be drawn toward the genre now. I learned very quickly that, as an agent, you have to really believe in the book you are representing, and if you are as passionate about the project as the author is, then you will be much more willing to throw yourself into getting it out into the world.

The role of the agent is changing every day, a lot of what we do is editorial, and it’s a very tricky market at the moment, and so it’s especially important to remain very selective in what I do and don’t take on. Horror happens to be a genre that I love, so here I am. I also love a lot of other kinds of writing—mystery/thriller, historical fiction, middle-grade, certain types of nonfiction, and sports to name a few—but horror will always hold a special place in my heart.

MMY: So you personally enjoy horror and dark fiction. Any favorite books or movies?

(more…)

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Sunday Digs: On Prowler, Spiders, Rejection, and WTF?

Here are a handful of goodies from around the Internet that we found interesting this past week:

First, let’s kick out the jams!

If you dig heavy metal and horror, check out Prowler, a three-piece metal band from South Carolina that pays homage to classic horror.

You can order their debut full-length, After You, from our buddy Kieran and Slaney Records.

Spiders just got creepier…and learned how to dance.

Moving right along, quickly. (Did you see that thing? Christ!) There always seems to be some author out there making a big, ill-advised stink about being rejected by some publisher or another. Never a wise thing, of course. But if you’re looking for some possibly helpful tips (I personally think a few of them are bullshit, but you may think they’re writer’s gold), check out 25 Things Writers Should Know About Rejection.

And finally, we host a prompted flash fiction contest every two months, the latest of which began on July 1. The prompt this go-round was an article from 2008 concerning a century-old Swiss watch discovered in a Ming Dynasty-era tomb that’s been sealed for four centuries.

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Tales from the Metalnomicon: James Newman

We here at Shock Totem HQ are big fans of Decibel Magazine, and we’ve been very privileged to have a fan in one of their writers.

Shawn Macomber has featured Shock Totem on the Deciblog in the past, and just recently he invited James Newman to stop by and drop some knowledge on writing and music for his Tales from the Metalnomicon feature.

Looking for inspiration? Click here.

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Tales of Grand Illusion

Recently, a writer friend on Facebook posted about how he hated the “who you know” model for advancing his writing career, but he acknowledged that most of his opportunities came from people he knew. I can relate.

It’s not just in writing, the whole world revolves on a “who you know” axis. Every job I’ve ever gotten has been because of who I knew, whether directly or indirectly. Friends and contacts are an invaluable resource that you can and should be using to further your writing.

There is social media, like Facebook and Twitter, but there are other methods as well. We here at Shock Totem have a variety of ways that we try to aid writers in developing their talent on our message board. There are two very popular flash contests that we host regularly, as well as the underused Writer’s Workshop section for critiques, submission calls, etc. And we are happy to provide them.

We want to see writers improve and succeed, particularly horror writers, since that’s what we’re all about. There are a whole lot of fantastic writers slogging away in the trenches, and we’re doing what we can to lift up those whose work we deem to be noteworthy.

But as I replied to my friend, “who you know” has a darker side as well.

While we can and should be promoting our writer friends, there is a fine line between encouragement and enabling. If your friend has written and published a great book, buy it, and encourage others to do so. But if your friend has written and published a book that is rife with spelling and grammatical errors or just poor writing, you’re not helping them by promoting it as a “must read”. In fact, you’re harming them.

The whole idea of promotion is to widen your circle, so that not only your friends and family buy your books out of a sense of obligation, but also their friends and so on, until people who have no clue who you are are tweeting about how much they enjoyed your book. But if people buy a book because someone hyped it on Amazon or Facebook, only to discover that the book is bad, how likely are they to buy another book based on that person’s recommendation?

In these days of self-publishing, when anyone can write a short story one day and offer it for sale the next, a lot of sub-par writing is being published, promoted and praised. Writing is a difficult and laborious process, you don’t go from joker to genius overnight. Take your time; get a real, honest critique from someone who not only knows good writing from bad, but also isn’t afraid to tell you which camp you’re in.

Even literary giants started by writing poorly. But in the days when getting a book published was difficult, they had knowledgeable editors who were not afraid to tell them that their story needed work. Nowadays, if your only editors are your friends, how can you be sure that they are giving you an honest and educated opinion?

If you’re a writer, seek out someone who isn’t afraid to tell you that your story stinks, and can offer helpful suggestions to make it better. And if you’re an enabler, promoting or endorsing sub-par writing because the writer is a “nice person” or you want them to promote your book, knock it off. You’re operating on the dark side.

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Sunday Reads: On Writing, Podcasts, and Zombie Ants

Here’s a handful of links from around the Internet that we found interesting this past week.

First, over at Liberty Conspiracy, Gard Goldsmith has posted two podcasts featuring over an hour’s worth of interviews and commentary recorded at this year’s World Horror Convention in Austin, Texas. You can listen to part one here and part two here. Great stuff!

On the writing front, here’s something for the struggling writer: Thirteen tips to help you get some writing done. And this would probably fall under the category of Struggling Writer, but specifically, here’s a little something for the depressed writer. But maybe you’re neither struggling nor depressed, so how about a Writer Reality Check? Can’t hurt.

Right?

For those of us venturing into the world of e-books, check out Nathan Bransford’s enlightening piece on the 99 cent e-book and the tragedy of the commons. It’s bananas (while they last).

Now for the fun stuff: Zombie ants! Heard of them? Have you read Spore, by John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow (dude, you need a website)? Either way, check out another example of art imitating life.

And with that, I’ll leave you with these amazing images.

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Sunday Reads: On Writing, Rejection, and Spiders

Here are a handful of links from around the Internet that we found interesting this past week.

First up, some stuff on writing. Shane Staley of Delirium Books posted an interesting essay on the current state of small-press horror. A more upbeat piece comes from Adrienne Crezo, where she tells us that the “Big Debate” doesn’t matter.

Here are a couple tips on handling rejection: Jacqueline Howett responds to a review of her book, The Greek Seaman. Read the comments, then always do the opposite. Though a bit one-sided, presented as it is, over at Crossed Genres we were shown yet another example of a not-so-recommended rejection response.

Now, how about some fun and cuddly arachnids? A man in Dortmund, Germany is killed and then eaten by his creepy-crawly pets. And in flood-ravaged Pakistan, spiders have taken to the trees in what can only be described as something out of a nightmarish fantasy.


[ Photo by Russell Watkins ]

Scares the hell outta me, anyway!

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Getting Beyond the Door

Note: This post does not reflect how things are handled at Shock Totem.

So you just finished a 5,000-word story. Read on…

Have you ever heard an editor say a story needs to grab him—or her—within the first few pages? Have you ever thought about what that means for you, as a writer? What it really means?

In the business of reading slush, where hundreds of stories pour in weekly, those first couple pages can mean the difference between rejection and acceptance. Some editors say a story needs to grab hold from the opening line, and while some authors pull this off with ease, others take a slower approach. Some authors start with explosions, while others light small fires that grow and grow…

Because some stories beg for the explosive intro, and others require a slow build. It all depends on the tale (excluding flash fiction, which has no excuse not getting right down to business). But how often is a great story overlooked because an editor—and there are plenty who subscribe to this school of thought—thinks a story needs that WHIZBANGPOW! opening?

I recently finished a 5,300-word story. In standard submission format—12pt Courier font, double-spaced—it’s 29 pages long. Now let’s discuss exactly what that translates to: Changing the format to Times New Roman, single-spaced, the story shrinks from 29 pages down to 11. What was once the first three pages an editor sees is now barely a quarter of the way down page two, and the story starts halfway down page one! So we’re talking a mere 483 words.

Frightening. But it’s worth thinking about.

We, the writers, must impress within the first few pages, right? We’re told this over and over again. But depending on the publication that standard may be an illusion, because in standard submission format, those pages represent but a handful of words—not pages. And that’s just to keep the door from closing, let alone getting your story across the threshold! And beyond that there’s a whole new set of obstacles.

Less than 500 words…

Scary.

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